Authors: Mimi Johnson
Ruby Eyed Fox
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Already bitter, the temperature was still dropping when Wendell Carlson forced himself out of the blue recliner in his cozy living room. He pulled on the thickest coat he owned, a hunting jacket, ragged and bloodstained. Still pulling up the stubborn zipper, he stepped out the front door and into the frigid night. The lights from Main Street, just over the hill, weren’t enough to dull the stars’ bright pinpoints in the clear sky. It was perfectly still, the kind of winter night when every wisp of warmth flies right out into the heavens.
Just the thought of squeezing his backside behind the steering wheel and onto the cold, torn seat of his wife’s old Chevy was almost enough to send Wendell back into the house. But if her car didn’t start in the morning, she’d make him even more miserable. The Wal-Mart wouldn’t cut her any slack if she was late for work. His pickup with its block heater would have a better chance of starting after sitting out in the cold. That was the trouble with a one-car garage; the wrong vehicle was always inside.
Down the walk, his boots shattered the crisp snow crystals with a distinct crunch that carried in the stillness. On the car's frosty back window, the blinking Christmas lights from the Tillmans’ across the way made a weird, rhythmic reflection. He’d just opened the driver’s door when he heard someone yelling. Just under the corner streetlight he saw the kid running, slipping and trying to keep his feet. He wasn't wearing a coat.
Wendell let the door go. It didn’t latch tight, but he went on into the street, calling, “Hey! Hey, what’s going on?”
The boy stopped, pointing back the way he’d come, his yells louder, but a jumble of sound Wendell couldn’t make out. There was something in the cries, a yelping really, that made Wendell start to trot toward him, and then run. “They’re in there! They’re in there!” The words were a keen, over and over, and Wendell’s stomach rolled over. What the hell had come running out of the dark?
The boy slid the last few feet to him and Wendell tried to grasp his arms, his fingers sliding across wet, sticky flesh. He looked down to see the deep scratches that dripped little red stars onto the snow.
“Andy?” He’d known the Brubaker kid for years, but the boy’s face was so contorted Wendell hardly recognized him, Andy's eyes rolling with panic. Wendell shook him, turning his head from the kid’s reek. “You drunk?” Then Wendell realized the smell was gasoline.
Over and over, “They’re in there! Help! They’re in there!” The gasping kid pulled Wendell just a little further, toward the crest of the hill, pointing down Main Street. About a half block down, Wendell thought he saw some movement in the Corner Grocery Store, and for a second, wondered if the kid had seen burglars. But as he stared, he realized that the interior of the building was beginning to glow, and the movement danced and jumped under a thick, smoky shroud.
“Good, sweet Christ!” Wendell pulled the boy up close. “Andy, who? Who’s in there?”
“Bobby and Jeff!” It was a shriek. Wendell let go and Andy went down, rolling and wailing incoherently on the snow-packed street.
He just left the writhing boy. He didn’t have his cell phone. He started running back toward his house, moaning, “Shit, oh shit!” A deep, sinister rumble came from down the hill, and slipping, Wendell just caught his balance as he swung a look back to see the building shudder as the plate glass front window blew out onto the street. He moved onto the snow-covered grass for better traction, running faster, his breath coming hard. The cold pressed like needles into his face, and tears began to form and freeze in his eyes.
Seven Years Later
Swan August Erickson stood at the enormous bay window in his home office at Terrace Hill. The sun was setting. Looking down at the wide, sloping lawn, where the last of the autumn leaves skittered and writhed on the steadily increasing wind. Dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, the Iowa governor looked more like the small-town grocer he used to be, when everyone just called him "Swede."
He heard the door open behind him, but continued to stare at the ground below. The unseasonably warm weather was changing before his eyes. A sweeping cold front from the north was drawing down the damp, raw weather typical of Iowa’s late fall. On a sudden gust, a twisting spire of crusty leaves lunged up toward the window. It seemed everything inside him stopped: his breathe, his heart, his mind. He shut his eyes, overwhelmed with sensation that as the leaves dropped away he was falling with them.
The man behind him cleared his throat, and said softly, “Governor?”
“Yeah, Pat,” Erickson swung around with the warm smile that had won approval across the state.
“The ball is rolling back home for the announcement.” No matter where they had come from, everyone on Erickson’s staff called the Governor's hometown of Lindsborg "back home."
“We’ll leave about noon tomorrow. That’ll give you some time with your family there, and we can put the final touches on your speech. I just got off the phone with Larson Builders. They’ll start setting a dais up in the store’s parking lot tomorrow night after they close.”
Swede nodded. “Make sure they keep it real simple. No bunting. No plants or flowers, none of that crap. Just the state and national flags. Leave it plain and craggy, like me.” Both men laughed.
“They understand. Of course, I didn’t give them any details about the announcement, but obviously they know.”
“Well, they may be country folk, but they’re not stupid, Pat.”
Donnelly inclined his head in agreement. “Word is going to start seeping out in the next few hours. The press will …”
“Yes, the press,” Erickson nodded again, and when his gray eyes met Donnelly’s they were direct. “We’re only giving it to Jackie.”
“I want Jack Westphal to break it. Just him. Tell him it’s embargoed until morning. Then he can plaster it on the
website. Hell, he’ll probably run a special print edition too. Let the national pack bust their humps getting here for the announcement. They’ll have enough time if they hustle.”
? But Governor,” Donnelly’s brow knitted, “we’ve had major media outlets hanging for weeks. Starting out on their favorable side is a consideration, especially with your late entry.” Erickson didn’t respond, just turned back to the window. “Jack’s a hell of a guy and the Lindsborg Journal is a nice little news outlet, but …well … sir, you don’t want to …”
“Yeah, I do. I know what I want, Pat.” The words were genial enough, and Donnelly was tempted to argue, but when Erickson looked back at him, something in the Governor’s eyes stopped him. “Someone’s got to be first,” Erickson added, “and I want Jack. He knows me. He’s safe.” Donnelly frowned again, but Erickson didn’t notice as he reached up and jerked the gold curtains closed. “Besides, it’ll play well; the small town press launches the homegrown candidate.” The winning smile returned. “Think of it as classic understatement, Paddy. The electorate will eat it up.”
Erickson grinned Donnelly out the door. But at the soft click of the latch, his face fell. Alone again, he rubbed his eyes, trying to remember when he stopped being afraid.
Sam Waterman leaned against the doorframe as if reluctant to enter the room and join the meeting. The view from Politifix.com’s conference room was an iconic one. In the morning sunshine the Potomac sparkled 22 stories below, and across the river ran the unmistakable line of symbols that marked the nation’s capital: the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Capitol dome. Everyone who came on business or to tour the offices of the popular, and surprisingly profitable, political news website asked to see this view. In fact, a picture shot from the room’s east wall of windows was stripped across the top of the site’s homepage, a visual brand.